Family can be a difficult subject for a lot of people, especially if they can’t be defined in simple terms–when there’s not just a mom, a dad, and 2.5 children. Blame it on dysfunction, divorce, or whatever.
For my mom, her parents’ divorce in the early 1940’s (in a small town) was the beginning of something almost as frustrating as the Great Depression. My grandmother left their home and took my mother (the youngest of six) to live with her oldest son (her war hero) and his English wife in Baltimore. Refusing to stay in Maryland, my mother took a bus back home to Virginia. My grandfather’s two-room house is still standing, but how they all (grandfather, aunt, aunt and husband, uncle, and my mother) lived, much less fit, in that tiny space boggles the mind.
A few years later, my aunt Mary and her husband (Ed) found a house they could afford nearby and my mother moved in with them at some point in middle school.
And that might have been all I’d say, but this is about my favorite things.
You see, I never knew my grandparents–any of the four of them. I was adopted when my parents were fortyish and they were both the youngest of six, so time was not my friend. The only “grandparents” I ever had were Auntie (pronounced with a hard ‘a’ and silent ‘t’) and Bapaw; in fact, that’s exactly how my husband describes them to people. They raised my mother and she lived with them until my dad was discharged from the Army.
Even now, my memories are filled with traveling the two-hour distance to Virginia on Saturday mornings and waking Sunday to the smells of sausage and biscuits and gravy. Of playing with the neighbor’s cat and walking down the steep hill to the flee market. Of always, always squealing with delight at the train passing below us.
And Bapaw was always beside me.
For all the sterness that was my Auntie (though she was a fantastic kidder), Bapaw was the gentlest of softies. I still love to hear stories from my mother of his time in the war, where he cared for the horses in the Army’s cavalry; and though horrid, how devastated he was when the program was eliminated and the horses put down. It reminds me of his sweet, empathetic character. He was a man who didn’t revel in his masculinity, yet he served his country in war, not because he thrived on excitement and adventure, but because of his strong sense of patriotism.
Naturally drawn to innocent things, Bapaw would spend time with children, animals, and his garden. To me, he is a symbol of the uncorruptable, the morally pure. When asked, he gave generously, almost to the point of financially hurting himself. Just last week my mother remembered how any compliment to him, like his shoes, would end up with him buying you a pair too.
Bapaw loved his family lavishly. This was a man from Kentucky, who married and went back to live with his wife’s family. He adopted us all. I can’t imagine how my life would be different if they’d had children, but I’m secretly glad I didn’t have to compete for his attention.
As I began to live my own life, I spent less time with them, though the summer of 1994 is marked with repeated trips after Auntie had a stroke. Mom was her constant care-giver; Dad and I would visit on weekends and console Bapaw. The love of his life was hurting, and via an emotional, invisible umbilical cord, he hurt too. Over the next decade, my parents and I were devastated by having to witness their mutual deterioration. Hers was mental, his was vicarious. Like husbands who physically and emotionally mimic pregnancy, Bapaw experienced the symptoms of paranoia and dementia.
When Auntie died in 2004, though he was distraught for many months, the grief was eventually replaced with my old Bapaw. Old he was and by no means able to take care of himself, but his happy disposition shone through each and every visit. I was almost certain he would deteriorate like those who die within weeks or months of a spouse, but he proved me wrong. He found joy in his neighbors at the assisted living home.
But life without Auntie dictating, even in a paranoid state, was hard for Bapaw. Though his memory of faces remained, names were erased–even his beloved Mary. The remaining years he referred to Auntie as “her” and he would weep. What a way to see love survive over 60 years–through the country’s economic crisis, separation due to war, childlessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, medical illness, retirement, and even death–despite her being gone from his life physically, her name erased from his mind, the love he had for her remained. It was as if she had left her fingerprint on his heart.
Bapaw died a few years ago and it was overwhelmingly difficult. I was blessed to have my husband and children get to know him and see him as the sweet, compassionate man who always doted on me.
It took two years before mom was completely ready to go through the house, pack up what she and I wanted for ourselves and bring home. Even much of my portion ended up in her house to “air out” the musty smell that I knew as Auntie and Bapaw’s house. I prefer to think of it as her chance to have a final goodbye to the people who gave her a home amidst a troubling time. Last year, I was able to move Bapaw’s cedar chest into our house. It sits at the foot of the bed and is often used as a perch for our cats.
I haven’t opened it since we brought it in. I’m not entirely sure why, but I like to think that all those contents–the picture albums, uniforms, books, his mother’s Bible, his collectibles–house his spirit in a way. I know that looking inside won’t magically let his spirit out, but I’m a little afraid that if I do go through all his things again, it will feel like there’s less of him with me. And, of course, that I’ll end up in a puddle on the floor.
Cheers to Bapaws everywhere!